You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. But leading horror writer James Herbert OBE wouldn’t mind if you did. The 50-million copy selling author’s first love in life was not writing but art. At 16 he went to Hornsey Art College, studying graphic design and print before finding work in advertising. Rising quickly through the ranks he was an agency art director by 28, which is when he decided to write instead.

“I began to get bored,“ says the 69-year-old. “The challenge had gone out of it, and I came to realise that I was spending most of my time going to meetings rather than being creative. I realised one day that I could just do it so I wanted something else. Books just happened to be the thing!“

After ten months of hard work he produced his debut The Rats. He had five rejections before finding a publisher, but the first 100,000 print run sold out within weeks and the book has never been out of print since. In the last 40 years, has written 23 novels, six short stories, two non-fiction stories and one graphic novel. But the artist in him can’t settle for words alone – he likes to design his book covers too.

For his fourth book, Fluke, the publisher ran their own design.

“Now, they made one mistake,“ says James, “when they printed the book, their usual typeface was Times Roman, which is a good face, but it’s a bit sharp.

“I told them, “Look, this is a much softer book, I want you to set it in Palantin”. When I saw they’d gone and printed it in Times Roman I hit the roof. They ended up pulling the whole lot, and had to print it all again.

The Survivor I did and they changed it, which I was hopping mad about. They used yellow for the typeface, it was so cheap and nasty where I’d done a nice design with a skull and a jet plane flying through the eye of the skull.“

Once within its sleeve, however, James Herbert’s books are impossible to put down. With a skilful blend of horror and thriller fiction, he explores the shaded territories of evil, evoking a sense of brooding menace and rising tension. He relentlessly draws the reader to the story’s ultimate revelation – one that will stay to chill the mind long after the book has been laid aside.

Having published books since 1974, what keeps James writing?

“Each one is a challenge, that’s what makes it interesting. I like to think I’m getting better – but I’m still learning!“

His appearance at the North London Literary Festival will be a rare one, the author preferring to stay on his 30-acre estate near Brighton and writing in his study.

“People expect my room to have black walls,“ he says “but everything is white, all the walls are white and each wall has something of interest to look at – it’s like my mind, there’s a lot going on inside and I make full use of it.

“I rarely do this type of thing, I rarely come out of the cupboard – not the closet! But I’ve come out of the cupboard to get on with speaking to people, usually I’m just working all the time, so this will be a pleasure for me.“

  • James Herbert is at the North London Literary Festival on Wednesday, March 27 at 7pm. Details:

This event has been cancelled. Freetime was saddened to hear of the death of James Herbert on March 20th.